Sioux Hans Odenthal

Hans Odenthal is the HR manager at Sioux Technologies.

23 February

Waiting to get more context before answering a question is harder than it seems.

In our high-tech world, most managers I know have an engineering background. Using logic and solving problems is what we’re taught to do. As a manager, you’re also expected to solve problems. If someone in your team asks you for help, your instinct tells you to try and find a solution. It’s better if you don’t.

The art of slowing down, I like to call it. During my career, I’ve coached many young managers on people management skills. First of all, you must have a genuine interest in people. This is something you can’t learn or train. Your fellow workers will immediately notice when you’re only playing the game for your own benefit. What can be learned, is to suspend judgment to find out what the other person really needs. If you hold on to your bias, you’ll start asking questions and drawing conclusions from your perspective.

Consider, for example, someone in your team asking for a raise. In your opinion, he already earns more than enough. You may even think it impolite to bring it up. It will probably lead you to point out that his colleagues have the same salary and that he needs to wait until the end of the year for his yearly appraisal. A more neutral question, such as “Can you please give me more context?”, might give you insight into the actual problem. Maybe he’s living next to a family that makes a lot of noise and he desperately wants to move.

People who ask for help rarely give context, at least not at first. Usually, they start with a question with an implicit solution. This is an invitation to answer the question right away – we’re conditioned to do so. Fight that urge! Try to grasp the context of the question first. Think of a good car salesman who responds by asking for the purpose when you ask for the price of a specific car.

All this may sound clear-cut. However, from my experience, I know that in practice it’s very hard to find the right balance between asking the right questions and just answering the question. It’s a matter of listening carefully to the questions, reading the body language and looking for irregularities. Maybe someone just wants to get a raise. Or it may be someone who has never done this before and is very nervous about asking. There’s no recipe for knowing when to start asking the why. And certainly not for when to stop, but that’s much later than most people expect.

The annoyance with the noisy neighbors built up over a longer period. Your colleague started to think about moving, looked at Funda and found some interesting places. He searched the internet for a mortgage and noticed that his salary wasn’t high enough to buy this escape route. In this column, this all happens in one paragraph. In reality, it took more than one year. And when he asked me for the raise, he was desperate.

Giving him a pay hike would have been unfair to his other colleagues. But I withheld my opinion and started asking questions to understand the context. When I got the info about the noisy family and that this was the reason for moving, it became clear to me what the real problem was. I knew that my colleague is someone who always puts the relationship first. And that he was afraid that he would be seen as a complainer. I asked him what the neighbors’ response was to his concerns. It turned out that I was right: he hadn’t dared to discuss the issue with them, afraid of disrupting the relationship. Long story short: finding a training course to improve his assertiveness skills was the answer to his salary question.

Slowing down feels counterintuitive. In general, we’re used to running to the finish line instead of walking together and exploring the surroundings. One of my colleagues was eager to learn the art of slowing down. In our coaching session, I assumed that she understood how to do this. Until she asked me at the end of our conversation: “Hans, is there a two-day course where I can learn this trick?”

As engineers, we know that we have to try to understand our customers and their context. We never give the customers what they ask, we give them what they need. Why is this different for your team members? The next time you get a request for help, don’t answer straight away. A good manager considers that the easy way out. Ask for context first.